How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins

The folks over at Paraclete Press publish some thought provoking books. Everything from musings on the Sabbath from a former practicing Orthodox Jew turned Anglican Christian; to interesting fiction (see here and here); to memoirs about the “surprising gifts” of growing up in a fundamentalist family. Given my interest in faith and religion, I suppose it is not surprising I find their catalog interesting.

A recent addition to their catalog continues this trend: How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins. It is certainly a thoughtful and thought provoking read.

One of the problems with a book like this, however, is that you wonder if it will ever be read by anyone outside the community it describes. Rollins is attempting to describe the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the “emerging church” or the conversation that is taking place around the world about how to approach the Christian faith in a post-modern era.

To do this he brings the work of deconstructionist theory, and the history of Christian mysticism, to theology and faith. In doing so he tries to avoid the dichotomy of fundamentalism on the one hand and relativistic nihilism on the other. He wants to challenge and re-imagine the Christian faith without abandoning its core meaning.

This is not an easy task. I have a feeling that many more traditional Christians will be turned off by 1) what they will perceive as a threat to orthodoxy; and 2) by its language rooted in post-modern criticism and theory.

But I would recommend that this book be read in the spirit in which is written. Instead of viewing it as a threat to orthodox Christianity, view it as a challenge and a source of potential insights. Rollins certainly challenges traditional ways of thinking about theology and faith.

His deconstructionist approach to knowledge and truth will feel awkward and potentially heretical to most Christians, and it isn’t always easy to sift through the language, but there are a number of keen insights for those who put in the effort. Some examples are below.

At the heart of Rollins world view is an embrace of Heretical Orthodoxy. In a Q&A put together by Paraclete he described this idea:

I have become increasingly concerned that much of the contemporary church has
taken a wrong turn by embracing the Enlightenment influenced idea that theology is that which speaks of God i.e. theology is that which makes claims about the nature and essence of God. In light of this, orthodoxy has been interpreted as ‘right belief’ and subsequently been employed as a means of identifying those who supposedly possess a correct understanding of God. In this way the orthodox individual stands in contrast to the heretic i.e. to one who holds wrong beliefs about God. In a nutshell I argue that this idea of orthodoxy is both fundamentally flawed and deeply dangerous. In opposition to this dominant view I put forward the idea that orthodoxy, if it is to remain true to the biblical narrative, must be understood as ‘believing in the right way’.

This Hebraic rereading of orthodoxy is no mere reversal of the first reading (for the opposite of right belief is simply wrong belief) but rather places it on a fundamentally different level. When orthodoxy is reinterpreted in this manner it no longer needs to exist in opposition to heresy, but can actually embrace it. In heretical orthodoxy we can thus affirm the long lost mystical insight that God is received but never conceived (i.e. that we will always fall short of understanding the God we are in relationship with) and that the mark of this reception is not the manifestation of some doctrinal system that supposedly defines God, but rather is made manifest in the life of one who helps to transform the world in Christ-like love.

Reading the above will give you a flavor both the thinking and the language on display in the book. And, while I don’t generally enjoy deconstructionist theory or look to thinkers like Foucault, Freud, etc. for insight, I think this kind of challenge to traditional ways of thinking can be useful. Below are a couple of points that I found useful and/or challenging:

1) Intellectual humility is something I think all Christians would do well to cultivate. Give the climate and culture we live in, it is understandable that Christians can feel defensive and angry but that doesn’t make it wise. Rollins challenges rigidity, certainty, and dogmatism. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, or his underlying philosophy, but I think his way of thinking is worth reading and contemplating. It is good to get out of the rut and see things through someone else’s eyes.

His discussion of faith and doubt is also worthy of some thought. This entails both an approach to theology and to spiritual living. Theologically he is trying to occupy a middle ground between “the naive view that we can speak of God and the defeatist notion that we must give up on God.” Rollins isn’t saying there is no truth but that our nature and the nature of God means that our conceptions of truth are provisional and often tainted with our temporal perspective.

Rollins contrasts the “idolatry of ideology” with “theology as icon.” To oversimplify, idolatry views something as an object while icons represent a subject. Dogmatism and fundamentalism risk idolatry because they objectify God using concepts of their own devising. They define and conceptualize – and thus constrain – God and then worship this creation. But Rollins notes, “God is not the object of our thought but rather the absolute subject before whom we are the object.” He then contrasts this with an iconic approach:

Unlike idolatry, which claims to make manifest the very essence of God, or the humanistic approach, which claims that God, if God exists, is utterly irrelevant, the iconic offers a different way of understanding. to treat something as an icon is to view particular words, images or experiences as aids in contemplation of that which cannot be reduce to words, images or experience. Not only this, but the icon represents a place where God touches humanity. Consequently, icons are not only the place where we contemplate God; they also act as the place God uses in order to communicate with us.

2) This way of thinking has an impact on how we act and are perceived in the world. In a discussion on apologetics Rollins notes a tendency I have quite often come across:

Legal terminology is often employed within this apologetic discourse so as to give the impression that Christianity can be proven beyond all reasonable doubt by a cold and objective analysis of the empirical evidence for its claims.

This attitude has often rankled me. I have often tried to point out that doubt is a necessary component of faith. If you have nothing but intellectual certainty then you don’t have faith but knowledge. Faith requires doubt. And as Rollins deals with in more detail, God wouldn’t be God if he were revealed completely and we could known and understand everything about him.

Rollins contrasts this with a sense of wonder and awe and a desire to seek after God and truth. In this way, “the believer who encounters serious doubt does not renounce his or her faith but rather uses it as an opportunity to affirm it.” In one of his many thought provoking descriptions he contrasts two ways of modeling faith and viewing the church:

In a world where people believe they are not hungry we must not offer food but rather an aroma that helps them desire the food we cannot provide. We are a people who are born from a response to hints of the divine. Not only this, but we must embrace the idea that we are also called to be hints of the divine.

[. . .]

For too long the church has been seen as an oasis in the desert – offering water to those that are thirsty. In contrast, the emerging community appears more as a desert in the oasis of life, offering silence, space and desolation amidst the sickly nourishment of Western Capitalism. It is in this desert, as we wander together as nomads, that God is to be found. For it is here that we are nourished by our hunger.

As I hope the above makes clear, while I am not part of the emerging church nor do I subscribe to all of Rollins’ deconstructionist notions, I found How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins an thoughtful and thought provoking read. I would hope that readers of all types and perspectives would give this book a chance. Despite its demanding, and at times awkward, language it is an insightful look at Christianity and its encounter with the post-modern world.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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